A 5-year-old boy from the UK who was born with autism never showed any emotion nor spoke a single word until his parents, by happenstance, found him a four-legged best friend for life.
Parents Hayley and Karsten Kirby-Bulner, from Andover, Hampshire, never intended for Fern the cocker spaniel to be their son Leon’s dog; it just worked out that way. The couple own a falconry business, and the new puppy was supposed to do flushing work with hawks.
That is, until Fern met Leon, then 2, for the first time, in 2018. Thanks to the furry friend, the boy’s reclusive state suddenly changed.
“The first time the duo met, we saw Leon’s little face light up, he smiled and engaged with the tiny Fern,” Hayley told The Epoch Times. “As parents, we were amazed, as Leon didn’t interact, speak, or show any emotion at this point.”
Seeing the remarkable effect Fern had on their son, the parents knew right then and there they’d lost their falconry dog; Fern would belong to Leon.
In order to foster this special bond, and this seemingly miraculous change in their son, the parents set about finding a trainer for Fern—to help her help Leon.
“She takes his clothes off, brings nappies, puts items in the bin, loads the washing machine, tidies up toys,” said Hayley. “And she has been trained to find him if he runs off.”
Moreover, Leon, who once was totally nonverbal, started to speak—and not just a little bit.
“Before Fern, Leon didn’t speak or interact, Fern was taught hand signals so that Leon could control her but he quickly changed the hand signals to words and now he chatters nonstop!” the mom said. “He much prefers animals to people.”
Leon was also born with a rare brain condition called a Chiari malformation, which causes his lower brain to push down on his spinal canal, causing chronic headaches which he has difficulty dealing with.
“When he suffers from a Chiari headache, he becomes very upset and angry and will self-harm, headbutting and hitting his head,” Hayley said.
“A simple shopping trip to a supermarket can be very troublesome, and when overloaded, Leon will start banging his head on floors,” she added. “Fern will block his attempts and lay beneath his head until he has calmed down.
“Fern was never taught to stop Leon’s headbanging but she has instinctively done it from a young age.”
Fern would also have a calming effect during Leon’s meltdowns, laying on him and applying deep, soothing pressure to ease his nerves, or nudging his hand as a distraction, encouraging him to stroke her.
But moreover, Leon’s found a friend in Fern, and a source of strength.
“Fern gives Leon confidence in situations he would otherwise find impossible,” Hayley said. They do everything together, from showering to sleeping to trying new foods.
So delighted were the Kirby-Bulners that they even started a dog training organization called T.A.P. Assistance Dogs to help more families with autistic children. They recently placed a second cocker spaniel, Arlo, with a family whose autistic child was in need of a friend.